27 November 2019

Labour’s trade union policies are a recipe for chaos

By Peter Young

One issue that has not really featured in the election campaign so far is the threat of excessive union power.

That’s curious, given that Labour’s manifesto commits the party to “repeal anti-trade union legislation” and John McDonnell has confirmed that this will mean the return of secondary strikes – so key public sector workers could down tools not because of a dispute with their own employer, but in support of workers elsewhere. McDonnell has been fairly coy about exactly what that would mean, but made clear that his party will “make sure that people have the right to withdraw their labour”.

Many voters will not remember the dark days of the 1970s and early 1980s when excessive union power was seen by most people in Britain as the country’s key problem. It was tackled successfully by Conservative governments through a series of gradual reforms and since then people have, for the most part, stopped worrying about it (though strikes on the transport network continues to seriously disrupt people’s lives). The extent to which the problem has diminished can be seen by comparing numbers of days lost to strikes – 29.5 million in 1979 versus just 273,000 in 2018.

It’s worth remembering just how severe the problem was. Just one communist shop steward in the state-owned car company British Leyland was responsible for 523 work stoppages and the loss of 62,000 cars and 113,000 engines at a cost of some £200 million (about £800 million in today’s money). Indeed, the unions were widely regarded as more powerful than the democratically elected government. In the summer of 1979, the Guardian’s Peter Jenkins wrote: “The trade unions in effect have brought down the last three elected governments, not by unconstitutional confrontation, but by making it near impossible for them to govern.”

Union reforms implemented by Conservative governments required secret ballots of union members before strikes could start, prevented secondary picketing, required union executive members to be directly elected by secret ballot, protected employees from being forced to join a union, outlawed political strikes, made unofficial industrial action more difficult and gave citizens a right to bring proceedings to halt unlawful industrial action that deprived them of goods and services.

Tony Blair’s manifesto for the 1997 election promised that “the key elements of the trade union legislation of the 1980s will stay – on ballots, picketing and industrial action”, and they were indeed preserved by the Blair and Brown Governments.  Corbyn and McDonnell, however, seem determined to break with this cross-party consensus and hand control of the economy back to the unions.

Though talk of a return to the 1970s can sound overblown, nor should we underplay the serious risk of a big increase in strike action, as the more extreme elements of the trade union movement are given free rein. After all, the direction of Corbyn’s Labour is heavily influenced by union leaders, whose donations help sustain the party. The most powerful and prominent is Unite boss Len McCluskey, a hard left activist described as a ‘Trotskyite’ by Labour moderates. Two thirds of existing Labour MPs are linked to Unite, which has also been very successful at placing its own people as new Labour candidates.

As revealed in a recent New Statesman piece, some of Labour’s manifesto promises, such as nationalising BT and introducing a 32-hour week with no reduction in pay, were dictated by trade unions. Other union policies in the manifesto include a compulsory return to sector-wide collective bargaining, so that the pay of over 20 million employees would be set by negotiations between unions and sector representatives, and one third of company boards being filled by worker representatives – in the swirl of election news, neither of those has really got much of a mention.

Worse still, Labour’s plans to rebuild state-owned monopolies will recreate the perfect conditions for unions to hold the entire country to ransom.  Imagine the radical Communication Worker’s Union in the new nationalised broadband monopoly threatening to switch off the country’s internet if its demands are not met. Labour has also announced that local government services will no longer be subject to competition but returned to state-owned monopoly provision, leaving them especially vulnerable to industrial action.

Lastly, there is every prospect that Labour’s overall policies, in particular the confiscation of private property without proper compensation, would lead to large-scale capital flight, a collapse in the value of the pound and the consequent return of high levels of inflation.  This will once again provide perfect conditions for competitive strikes in pursuit of higher pay.

One might think that a Labour government would wish to discourage strikes, but Corbyn and his entourage are not politicians in the usual mould. His acolytes, not least McDonnell, style themselves as revolutionary socialists and there’s every chance they will use union power to intimidate people and companies into going along with their radical agenda.

Since most people don’t remember the economic destruction caused by unions in the 70s and early 80s, this is an issue that should be debated very thoroughly in the run-up to the election so voters have a good idea of exactly what Labour’s policies would mean for their lives and livelihoods.

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Peter Young was formerly Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.